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Viewpoint: Getting the job done

Newly appointed chief construction adviser Paul Morrell on his new job.

One week in, I guess I have another few weeks in which I can talk about my approach to the job.

Then it will quickly move to “Yes, but what are you actually doing?” − and thence to “That’s all very well, but what have you actually done?” I’m already busy enough to know that there will be answers to those later questions. The Low Carbon Study initiated by business secretary Lord Mandelson is now under way, following the kick-off meeting of its steering group on my first day at the office.

This group represents a powerful team drawn from right across the industry and the government, and although its deliberations will be conducted in partnership, there is a determination that this will not be a report from the government telling the industry what it must do, but rather a report from the industry saying what it can and will do if the government creates the right conditions.

Meanwhile, at the Treasury, the parallel job is to chair a renewed Construction Strategy Board, which comprises representatives from central and local government who oversee most of the public sector’s expenditure on construction.

Here, the proper preoccupation is with getting best value for the taxpayers − which also means creating the environment in which best value can be delivered. It is therefore about promoting good behaviours in a collaborative culture, but it simply has to produce a better relationship between quality and cost, effectively getting more for less. What a good title Sir Michael Latham chose for his interim report, Trust and Money, it’s about earning both.

So there is no change of brain required, in the short walk between the department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Treasury, to lead both exercises. Both require the industry to modernise, to move the most backward firms up to the average, the average up to the best, and incentivise the best to get better.

And this takes me to an over-arching theme for the next couple of years, which is to do everything possible to encourage and develop the best possible relationship between the industry and the government, as its client, sponsor and regulator.

Many of the components of such a relationship are there, albeit patchy, but I think we are missing something that we desperately need if the respect in which many individuals, companies and institutions are held is to extend to embrace the industry as a whole: we need to show that we are an industry that has a plan for its own future.

As ever, a coherent response to this can be frustrated by the extraordinary degree of diversity and fragmentation across the industry, but if there is one subject about which it should be possible to unite around a coherent plan, it is the response to climate change and carbon reduction. It is therefore no accident that this is the core topic chosen for BIS’s Innovation & Growth study. It provides a focus, whilst at the same time touching on most of the issues that would arise around innovating for any purpose.

So there’s the challenge, almost as big as the challenge that Mandelson laid before our first meeting: not just to produce a plan, and one that will stretch the talents and habits of the industry, but also one that the industry has such belief in that its own business plans will start to align with the objective.

On the way, there will of course be many other issues, and many that will demand and deserve attention. As ever, however, the trick will be to make sure that the urgent never drives out the important.

  • Paul Morrell is chief construction adviser

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